From Dusk Until Dawn: Anatomy of a True Horror Game

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“I don’t understand why you’d do something that would frighten you.” They say. “Do you like feeling scared?”

No, I don’t. I hate feeling frightened.

As a child, I’d suffer sleep paralysis and wake up screaming for my Mother in the darkness. Our house, locked in by forest for two kilometres in every direction, was home to all manner of twisted horrors born of my imagination, which only intensified as I got older and subjected myself to films like The Blair Witch Project.

Those nights when I woke up screaming, I’d crawl into bed with my parents and keep myself awake with thoughts of dread surrounding my adult life; what about when I’m older, and this happens? What about when I live alone, in an apartment in the city? I’ll have nobody to scream out for. I’ll have nobody to crawl into bed with.

These days, I’m living that nightmare.

As such, there exists no world in which I induce myself with horror, force myself to be teetering on the edge of self-imposed anxiety and rushes of muscle-aching adrenalin. I’d never do that.

Except for when I do.

I can’t articulate why I like feeling frightened. I think it’s because I don’t.

But horror games are one of my favourite things. I study them. I critique them harshly. And I’ve started writing them.

*

If it’s one thing I can say about good horror games that I can say about no other genre, it’s this: They tap into something primal that no other game can.

I’ve played endless hours of beloved games like Mass Effect and Horizon Zero Dawn, but none of them gave me a deep, raw thrill that refused to go away. And while those games are emotional and important in their own way, they don’t have me fluttering, breath stunted, gut twisted for their duration.

It’s important to note that the phrase ‘good horror game’ is entirely subjective, moreso than any other type of game. They cannot be rated or graded as broadly as other titles in the medium.

Due to the nature of fear, it’s hard for horror games to appeal to a broad audience, even within their own genre.

While you can comment on the quality of gameplay, graphics or narrative direction, a ‘horror’ game, -by definition-, has one job: To frighten you.

If gore doesn’t put you off, then The Evil Within isn’t the game for you.

If feeling helpless and isolated fuels your anxiety, then Outlast is one of the best titles available.

In my extensive experience with horror titles, only one game has come close to touching all the facets necessary to be, -in my opinion-, a ‘complete’ horror game: A game that tells a distinct narrative; uses both supernatural and slasher fiction; and makes you feel truly vulnerable.

That game is Until Dawn.

Until Dawn is what all horror titles should aspire to be. The game understands it’s role: To have the player empathise and, ultimately, exploit that empathy to cause the player fear.

Until Dawn has been criticised for it’s gameplay. However, this comes back to my point that horror games cannot be compared fairly to other titles in the medium. The gameplay of Until Dawn is perfect because it doesn’t ask the player anything more than to make choices and explore, while the narrative builds, giving the player a rich setting to empathise with.

So much horror stems from curiosity: Curiosity of what we don’t know or understand. Choices made in Until Dawn both build empathy between the player and the characters, and offer the player the chance to satisfy their curiosity.

And that curiosity can be satisfied. Often at the expense of someone’s life.

*

I am a horror trope apologist.

Horror tropes aren’t to be scoffed at. Horror tropes are to be embraced. Horror tropes exist for a reason. There are fundamental ways to frighten people, and to truly tap into fear, horror has to make the audience feel familiar with the setting and situation.

Until Dawn is not just one trope, but many.

This is not lazy narrative. This is intentional.

Everyone knows how it feels to go away with a group of friends. Everyone knows how it feels to be in an unfamiliar place. Everyone has had arguments with ex-partners. Everyone has spent time alone in the dark. Everyone (with the exception of a blessed few), knows someone who has died.

Everyone has done something stupid because they weren’t thinking.

Everyone has heard an urban legend.

Everyone, at some point, has felt isolated. Be it emotionally or physically.

Until Dawn exploits the emotions of it’s target audience by throwing them in the midst of a group of friends who are trying to repair multiple broken relationships. Characters spout believable dialogue and act in ways which are honest and relatable. So much so, that most players have decided halfway into Act 1 which characters they are happy to have die.

Until Dawn ties it tropes together masterfully to tell a story which, by Act III, is woven into one of the more original horror stories depicted in games or on screen.

*

Good horror understands two chief points: #1 Shadows cast by a candle run the deepest, and #2 things remain scary the less you see of them.

That first point is (largely), metaphorical: Horror can’t afford to be constantly dark, twisted and oppressive. It can’t afford to be trying to frighten at all times, because (and this ties in to point #2), people become used to it. They become immune.

This was one of my chief complaints about Outlast; a game which has you so constantly on edge, that by the second hour, you’re not on edge anymore. You’ve got no point of comparison. There is no candle in the darkness for you to feel safe near, so you’ve resigned to your place in the shadows.

Until Dawn peppers itself with moments of respite. It realises that without offering a safe place (or the illusion thereof), the player will no longer feel frightened.

For every sequence you spend with an elevated heart rate and a dry mouth, there is a moment goofing with friends, or a lusty exchange between lovers. For the majority of the game, Until Dawn reminds the player that there does exist a world in which their friends aren’t being butchered one by one. It reminds the player that they have a reason to keep moving forward.

It also gives the player a much needed break, physically, from fear.

Point #2 is one of the more difficult aspects of horror to pull off, particularly in a game. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve subjected myself to something that was genuinely frightening me, only to have the film or game show me in full colour the object of my fear.

“Oh, is that what it is? Okay.”

Playing to the imagination of the audience is horror’s biggest advantage. Don’t show us. Imply. Hint. Throw us into the dark with our minds running rampant with possibilities. Because once we know what is hunting us, then we can rationalise it. And once fear can be rationalised, it is far less potent.

Until Dawn, through a unique narrative, keeps us guessing over and over as to the source of our fear. We’re unsure from the beginning if we should be frightened of monsters, mortal men with big knives, or our friends who we thought we could trust.

It keeps us guessing for as long as possible, until after the beginning of Act III, when the villain is revealed to us. And again, like good horror, the game doesn’t attempt to drag on longer than it should once it’s made the reveal.

Until Dawn respects its own narrative and, most importantly, respects its players.

It is the best AAA horror title we’ve had in a very long time.

*

Weeks later, I’m still reeling with feelings about Until Dawn. I’m looking forward to trying Resident Evil 7 and Soma. I am forever on the hunt for new titles that will twist my insides and drag me so seamlessly into a strong setting that will evoke in me our most primal emotion.

I want to be immersed. I want to feel the most genuine escapism possible. So far, horror has been the only genre of game to truly make me feel like I’m somewhere else, in all the ways I want.

Chugging down a healthy dose of aptly-named Nightmare Fuel in the late hours before bed is my worst habit. I’ve taken to sleeping with the lamp on. And when the lamp broke I opened the door to the bathroom and left that light on.

“But why would you do that to yourself?” They say. “Why purposefully make yourself feel anxious and afraid? I don’t understand.”

And neither do I.